The Fox network documentary Inside The Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes trims more than 100 hours of never-before-seen Manson family footage to fit into 90 minutes of viewable film, which could have been cut another half hour and told a bigger picture. Directed by Hugh Ballantyne, who made Finding Jesus, the special features original 16mm footage shot by Robert Hendrickson, who directed the 1973 documentary Manson and died in 2016. Most of it was shot while the Manson family lived on Spahn’s Ranch. The documentary is narrated by Ray Donovan‘s Liev Schreiber, who keeps the usual insinuations of these kinds of documentaries at a low level.
Ten months after Charles Manson’s death, the special comes out during a slew of examinations on his cult, and production on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood moves forward after the loss of Burt Reynolds. The documentary mixes the footage of the lost tapes with current interviews of cult members Catherine “Gypsy” Share and Dianne “Snake” Lake, as well as Manson prosecutor Stephen Kay, FBI criminal profiler John Douglas, and Robert Burnbridge, the cop on the scene when a call came in that a man was down. Fifty years after seeing Sharon Tate’s mutilated body, the seasoned policeman still breaks down at the thought of it. He is still trying to impose some sense on the crime and the man behind it.
Career criminal Manson was the son of a career criminal mother, who spent more of his life behind bars than on the outside by the time he met the first of his followers. They provided the family Manson needed, the documentary explains as its initial dip into pop psychology. But he was a tyrannical father. A pied piper with an acoustic guitar in his hand, Manson assembled half a dozen girls by the summer of 1968. He taught them to dig through dumpsters for food and traded them off for favors, as he did when the group took over Spahn Ranch from 80-year-old George Spahn. Manson paid his rent by having the girls work the land and keep the ranch-owner happy. Manson also schooled his students on the proper use of buck knives, which are more effective if you run up the body, hitting all the vital organs, after a stabbing. Windy Bucklee, a Spahn Ranch hand, said she started carrying a gun because the men in the evolving cult carried knives. This was all coming from a bunch of kids who started out as peace-loving flower children. They thought they were free. She thought they were slaves. The documentary tends to favor Bucklee’s assessment.
“The world was rock and roll crazy,” the documentary points out, and the guitar playing jailbird was prepared to put his insanity to music. Record producer Terry Melcher was a perfect door into the world of rock star celebrity. His mom was screen legend Doris Day, his girlfriend was Candice Bergen, and he had a pop formula that produced hit records by the dozens. Melcher produced the Byrds’ first two albums Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) and Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965), as well Paul Revere & the Raiders, Frankie Laine, Glen Campbell, and the Mamas & the Papas. Melcher met with Manson while the family was living with The Beach Boys’ drummer and vocal harmonizer Dennis Wilson. Melcher did not like Manson’s music “at all,” remembers follower Thomas Walleman, who would later be called on to murder a judge. But the famous producer also had a famous address. Although he moved before the murders, and rented his house to director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate, 10050 Cielo Drive was a symbolic altar for sacrificial rites.
Every related article at the time or since has labeled the Manson family members as brainwashed. The documentary is at its best when it tries to show what that means and how they got there. The tapes show how Manson broke his adopted flower children’s normally uninhibited inhibitions. He used sex to control his followers by shattering long held sexual confinement. The guys had to have sex with the guys, the girls with the girls, but this wasn’t a case of erotic freedom or an early step towards a gay positive attitude. Manson opened a cage only to strengthen his shackles, the documentary shows. Manson gave people what they needed, Gypsy explains at one point. He mirrored people, a component in Neurolinguistic Programming. The ex-con knew human nature and knew how to make his followers feel important.
The filmmakers prove this through example and expert testimony. Manson mentally corralled his band of followers into “group think,” says criminal psychologist Bryanna Fox. “I am Charlie,” we hear Walleman say in the lost footage, with eerie retrospective foreshadowing of “I am Negan” response on The Walking Dead. “If he dies, I die. I’ve given up my personality.” Another follower explains how Manson captured his followers’ hearts, and the first shot of love felt like heroin.
Cult expert Rick Alan Ross weighs in on the lost look in all the followers’ eyes, as they had no more thoughts of their own. Sex, combined with domination and drugs keep the family under control and docile. Isolated at the ranch, they only had Manson’s word for what was going on in the world as he forms a bubble to create a perfect breeding ground for his ideas.
The documentary adheres to the time line, starting with happy footage of the freewheeling hippies grooving in the grass on LSD to where they started witnessing Manson doing things normal people couldn’t do. One follower remembers Manson beginning to cast himself as god. The flock took the full dosage of whatever Manson was dishing out, while he himself took less. This wasn’t largesse on the father figure’s part, he just wanted to stay in control to he could keep them controlled.
“You are born with a natural instinct to be selfish,” Manson preaches on one of the tapes. But then people are “taught to follow society’s rules until a man stands in a cage because he was taught to.” Charlie would do anything to survive, the followers know, but it doesn’t stop them. “It’s groovy to blast a guy in the stomach just because he’s black,” says Watson at one point. “Death is no big deal, when somebody needs to be killed you do it and move on,” Sandra Good says.
The special features an exclusive interview with Bobby Beausoleil, from prison, where he is serving a life sentence. Beausoleil recounts how Manson sliced off Gary Hinman’s ears with a samurai sword and left Bobby to deal with the fallout. Manson told him to be a man, just like he’d shown him, drawing first blood. At first Beausoleil says he tried to help Hinman. But when he realizes bringing his wounded drug connection to a hospital will just land him in jail, Beausoleil figures only option he’s got it is to kill him. Inferred by the new testimony, it seems Manson put that conclusion into his head before long Beausoleil stabbed Hinman twice in the chest.
By the summer of 1969, Manson wanted to bring on a chaotic Armageddon, says filmmaker Peter Coyote, a consistent presence in the underground world of the west coast at the time. Penel Joseph, a Civil Rights historian, explains how Manson manipulated the fear of black led racial violence to turn paranoia into power. Manson twisted the words and ideas of The Beatles, though his followers misspelled “Helter Skelter,” the basis for his twisted theory of revolution. Manson saw the The Beatles as the 4 Horsemen of The Apocalypse, and the song about a coming race war. While songs like “Blackbird” reflect the Beatles take on an unjust system, the black man on the bottom of Charlie Manson’s slide had to be framed into turning over the system. Manson set the crimes in the most affluent areas of Hollywood, Beverly Hills. He stole the ideals of the revolution and warped them. Coyote recalls how even the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club wanted nothing to do with the race war Manson was pushing.
The most effective footage comes from Lynne Squeaky Fromme and her two counter-revolutionary sisters Sandra Good and Nancy “Brenda” Pitman. It comes across like the deranged army recruiting ad the family members probably saw it as. The intensity of the women is mesmerizing as they cock their rifles and offer up their philosophy and undying love of their fearful leader. The Manson women called themselves the Devil’s Witches or Satan’s Maidens and wore denim MC jackets with the names emblazed in a sultry blood red.
At one point, Fromme says she is a new reflection of the father. Sandra Good proclaims that Manson did miracles like bringing dead birds back to life. She also is the follower who explains how Charlie taught them about his name. Manson was man’s son, or the son of man. “200 years ago they hung me on a cross,” she recalls being told, “but they won’t kill me because I already died.”
With 100 hours of professionally filmed clips to choose from, the documentary relies too much on dramatized footage. Most of the clips may have had no soundtrack, which would have made for better viewing during the voiceovers. There are too many shots of tapes rewinding, fast-forwarding, spooling on reels. We get it. There was a lot of footage, the directors should have spooled them together in advance.
The special leads up slowly to the first murders which occurred on August 9, 1969. The killings on 10050 Cielo Drive were done by Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and former Girl Scout Susan Atkins. The filmmakers make it sound like the only thing Atkins ever did out of ordinary was the Manson murders. The filmmakers also talk with Ronnie Howard, the prison cell mate who turned Atkins in after hearing her reminisce about how she stabbed Sharon Tate until she stopped screaming. Atkins also admitted she felt a rush and a got a buzz from the killing.
“At first it was hard to stab someone but it got to be more fun,” the footage captures one of the cult members saying, as the documentary continues to probe the long-term affects the cult leader had on his flock. They also do a good job bridging the gap between the crime and today. Beausoleil marvels at how he’s spent fifty years in jail. Looking back at the footage years later, one of the followers looks at herself saying how she could picture Sharon Tate pregnant, but never saw the dead thing inside her as a baby. “I must seem like a monster,” she says watching her younger self and asking forgiveness.
Busted for burning a government earth mover, Manson and his family were arrested and ultimately charged with the murder spree that ended the 1960s. The trial lasted seven months and was the most expensive up to that time. All the women were convicted on first degree murder charges, and sentenced to death. California abolished the death penalty for a short time and the group spent their lives behind bars, denied parole at every hearing. Fromme served 34 years for trying to shoot President Ford in 1975.
“You are all guilty,” Manson shouted at the jury, the documentary recounts, explaining how a murder mastermind became a counterculture icon with a cult following. Manson boasted from his jail cell that he did 35 murders. He gets more fan mail than any other inmate in America, the documentary points out, fetishizing the murderous fantasia.
The documentary is uneven, cutting corners on facts in order to bring the story out in the time frame and structure it impedes itself with. They do not mention the name Linda Kasabian once in the documentary. There are few real revelations, although we learn that after the first two murders, Manson also plotted to add celebrities Steve McQueen, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor to his murderous playlist.
Inside The Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes works as a pop psychological study, but is loaded with too much filler. There isn’t much new here but the footage. We’ve been told for years that Manson brainwashed his followers. He’s always been cast as the most frightening man on the planet whose eyes frightened parents and children alike. The doc is still a cautionary tale about the dangers of an outlaw hippie guru, but ultimately finds he was a counter-revolutionary right wing racist conman who knew three chords.
Inside The Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes premiered Monday, Sept. 17 at 8:00 p.m. on Fox.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.